Carolyn J. Dean

 

On her book Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust

Cover Interview of February 02, 2011

A close-up

One claim I make in different ways in the book—and very explicitly in chapter 3—is that to be really credible, a victim has to appear to have mastered his or her suffering.

There is a style that is most appreciated and recognized for telling stories of suffering—I call it “minimalism” after an art form with the same name.  What I want to convey is that victims who seem dignified and clear-eyed are those that we are most likely to believe.

This may seem self-evident: after all, aren’t those people reasonable and capable of conveying their experience in a way we can all understand?  The Holocaust survivor Primo Levi was always celebrated because of his measured approach to his own experience in Auschwitz, while other writers as good as Levi did not receive the same kind of attention.

There are other reasons for this: the most popular memoirs of the Holocaust were initially by writers who were not Jewish or who were from Western Europe, like Levi.  The Jewish experience, as someone put it, wasn’t as “marketable” because it was so far from what anyone could imagine.

All of this is true, and of course, by now a variety of memoirs has been published, many of them by Jews and East Europeans.  But there is still a bias, I argue, toward understatement in those memoirs we deem most truthful.

I argue that this is partly because there is a move afoot to take the Holocaust off of its pedestal as a kind of sacred event.  A good move, I think: giving the Holocaust sacred status denies that it was first and foremost a historical event.

But it is also true because fragile, powerless, and helpless victims make us uncomfortable, evoke complicated responses in us, and make it hard for us to empathize with the humiliation they underwent.

Indeed, that is why, to go back to my earlier comments, so many journalists denounced photography of political violence as demeaning to victims because it showed them in all of their helplessness.

And as I discuss later on in the book, these attitudes account for all the debate about the so-called passivity of Jews in the Holocaust and the aversion toward those who did not resist.  Remember that Jews were said to have gone like sheep to the slaughter?  Right after the war even Israelis expressed shame about Holocaust survivors because they allegedly did not for the most part fight back.  Though that debate is over, I would argue that the attitudes underlying it persist.

I hope that the reader will take away from the book some sense of how he or she responds to victim’s narratives, and how this is impacted by culture.